The ethereal China dream

On my recent trip to China I kept thinking about Thomas Freidman’s article “China Needs Its Own Dream”. In it he discusses the fact our planet cannot sustain China following the American path of consumption simply for consumptions sake. I was drawn to compare Friedman’s thoughts with those of Richard McGregor. In the last line of The Party McGregor writes, “China has known something that many in developed countries are only now beginning to grasp, that the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders have never wanted to be the west when they grow up.” McGregor’s words reflect the opinion I hold about China’s growth and development.  But does this reflect Chinese society as a whole? Do the Chinese have their own dream or are they chasing after a mutated version of the American Dream?

This exact topic came up seven times during my five-day trip in some form with friends, colleagues, clients, and a Professor I met on the flight home. All the Chinese I spoke with are overwhelmed by the costs and stresses of modern life. When asked where they would prefer to live, most spoke idyllically of “small town” perfection in the US and Europe. This discussion led to further conversations of what they wanted for themselves in China. During these chats, I identified six points on how the Chinese viewed their own environment and lives, which are consistent with what I’ve been hearing for the past two years:

1) Many Chinese who have achieved “middle class” status are striving to simply hold on to what they have and prevent those below them from taking their position in society.

2) They lack a sense of control over their lives, which they feel is exacerbated by the CCP.

3) Cost of living is disproportionately high in many Chinese cities compared to salaries.

4) Most want to live in uncrowded, clean, safe areas where they can spend more time with their kids instead of commuting to and from work.

5) Many who have not achieved success or “middle class” status just want what those above them in society have, with no thoughts to the costs or consequences.

6) Because no clear China dream has emerged, many seem to be striving for a Chinese version of the American dream. They grasp everything they can for the sake of having, rather than requiring or wanting.

One person I spoke with summed it up best when she said, “A couple percent of the population are rich and scared, as they always have to worry about the government killing the chicken to scare the monkey. 20% to 25% of Chinese are already successful, afraid to lose what they have achieved, and hold on tight to every benefit they have, while still trying to climb higher in society. 20% to 25% of people are above poverty, yet are not successful by anyone’s estimation, and want nothing more than the same life as those that are already successful. The rest are all poor and everyone fears what this group wants.” This summation fits well with the narrative of an unhappy and stressed society.

With these conversations fresh in my mind, when I returned home last weekend I read two blog posts by Chloe on China Daily Mail (How to be Chinese and Are Chinese Happy). Her points about the stresses of being Chinese in 2012 and how these stresses interfere with overall happiness and satisfaction with life are very timely and salient. I myself observed a lack of smiles, or mirth in general, on the street or in public while in Beijing, Nanjing, and Wuhan. Many Chinese feel the conspicuous consumption and rampant corruption of the Party are the root causes of the endemic unhappiness facing China. I disagree; I think they are only symptoms of a greater issue.

While the Chinese government clearly has a plan for development and success that differs from the American model, I do not believe it has successfully created a dream for the Chinese people to chase. Even if there was a government sponsored Chinese dream, the government’s desires and the people’s desires are not always congruent. I think the real issue facing the Chinese people is they have not finished defining the Chinese dream for themselves. The fact there is no unified definition of success in Chinese society cannot be overcome by any amount of material goods or conspicuous consumption. In the end it turns out the most sought after commodity in China, much like the US and the rest of the West, is happiness.

This post originally appeared at


Categories: Human Rights & Social Issues

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2 replies


  1. Eight ways China is changing your world « China Daily Mail
  2. An American’s mixed feelings about China « China Daily Mail

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